As a film critic and superhero fan, I was a bit perplexed by the response to the 2017 Wonder Woman film. Outside of Gal Gadot's outstanding performance, I didn’t think there was much to say about the movie that hadn't been said about previous comic book blockbusters. Yet many of my female friends had a clear emotional connection to it that they had not felt with other superhero films.
Since then, I've come to better understand how the women of the superhero fandom bring essential perspective to a space historically designed by and for men. With the upcoming March 8 release of Captain Marvel as the first Marvel film starring a leading woman, I figured this wasn’t the time for me to fill my usual role of critic. I saw an opportunity to explore and capture an important moment in the world of superheroes, a moment that, for many Columbia comic book fans, has been a long time coming.
Getting into the fandom
I reached out to Danielle Tongen, who has been a manager at Rock Bottom Comics for three years. She says she was first attracted to comics when she was 15 because she enjoyed getting into things most other people didn't like. "I wanted something offbeat, something different, something that actually challenged me or pushed me beyond the standard; if you want to call me a hipster, that would work," she told me, laughing. Tongen started by reading Hellblazer, a story about a detective in a world filled with paranormal creatures, after the 2005 film adaption Constantine.
Tongen also told me about her first experience at a comic book shop, when a man at the store made an inappropriate comment toward her. The moment confirmed her fear that comic shops stamped themselves as boys’ clubs, and for a long time after that, she avoided the shops, opting instead to buy her graphic novels from Barnes & Noble.
I spoke with Boone County library associate Dana Bocke, as well. Bocke started reading comic books at the grocery store as a tween and found that they were a way to bond with her brother. Her gateway comic was X-Men. She says that she loved the story’s diverse characters and powers, and she still loves narratives with strong group dynamics.
Currently, Bocke is really enjoying Ta-Nehisi Coates's run as a writer on Captain America, who is one of her favorite characters because of his moral code. "I think one of the things that makes [Captain America] so compelling as a character is sort of his sense of right and wrong, and how does he reconcile that with what he represents," she says. "How does he represent the people and still adhere to what he's trying to do?"
The importance of Wonder Woman
Early in her fandom, Tongen had convinced herself that superheroines as lead characters were not a big deal, especially in movies. Wonder Woman changed that for her. "As soon as I started seeing these female-led solo movies, I could feel the difference," she says. She realized that, all along, she'd convinced herself that the day would come when women starred in superhero movies, and if it wasn't today? Fine. That's okay. But now, "The day is here," she says. "And it's great."
Tongen says she walked out of the theater after seeing Wonder Woman and felt strong enough to punch a car and make it move.
It was the little touches from director Patty Jenkins that left Tongen with this sense of awe and empowerment. She talked about a moment in which Wonder Woman did the typical superhero ground-pound pose, and Gadot's leg jiggled. To Tongen, it demonstrated her body in a realistic, honest way.
For Bocke, it wasn't only that the film was female-centric, but also that it didn't oversexualize the character. "When she ate the ice cream cone, she ate it like a human," she says. "It wasn't seductive. Just tiny things like that — we become so desensitized that we just expect it."
Tongen says that modern redesigns of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel emphasize realistic body portrayals and more logical clothing, and this is a win for the feminine fandom because it allows women of all body types to feel as though they can recreate their favorite characters' costumes both accurately and comfortably.
Captain Marvel's modern flight suit costume, which replaced the traditional tight spandex, not only seems logical to both Tongen and Bocke, but it also marks a shift toward treating women characters as equals to men.
Bocke also says she wants Captain Marvel to be more than a "strong character." She should be a complex, flawed person. "Something I would like to see more of is letting that character be angry, letting that character swear, letting that character get dirty, be violent," she says. "And that anger isn't treated as something pretty or cute. It's an emotion."
Another woman I asked to interview declined because of the toxic environment both online and in Columbia surrounding this topic. She said she had recently experienced extensive harassment for speaking out against sexism in the industry, and one of her friends even received death threats. This is all too common in geek fandom. Brie Larson, the star of Captain Marvel, has faced backlash for voicing her opinions on female representation in the film world.
It's important to understand that Captain Marvel will be much more than just "Marvel's first female-lead movie." It is a convergence of years of progress for the character, the Marvel brand and superhero fans everywhere.
Fandom is a major reason we geeks have so much fun around comic books, movies and superheroes, but it's only fun if everyone has equal inclusion. Historically, geeks have been teased and ostracized; how can we do the same to our own kind?
Although Tongen says that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come so far since introducing Black Widow in 2010's Iron Man 2, Bocke still feels that there is still room for improvement. For now, though, there is a lot of love for Captain Marvel.
"She's becoming a huge force in the Marvel Universe," one fan told Vox (Vox.com). "And she's not a 'female superhero.' She's just a superhero."